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The Ivory Tower and Policy: China Edition

Harsh Pant in the Japan Times gets hyperbolic about China's building of bases overseas, and claims that this is a sign that Beijing is going to pursue an aggressive foreign policy:

Now, however, one of the most prominent foreign policy thinkers in China is suggesting that establishing bases overseas is a Chinese right that the government cannot ignore. Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, asserts that "it is wrong for us [China] to believe that we have no rights to set up bases abroad."

Dingli argues that it is not terrorism or piracy that poses the greatest threat to China's interests, but rather the potential of other states to block China's trade routes. To prevent this from happening, China, according to Dingli, needs not only a blue-water navy but also "overseas military bases to cut the supply costs."

There are plenty of reasons to believe that China is not a benign actor within the system, anyone who doubts this needs look only at the reaction China had to the Google 'incident.' Nevertheless, pointing to an article by a professor at a university only serves to muddy the waters. While Fudan University (复旦大学) is one of the top schools in the country, there is no reason to believe that Prof. Shen has any additional influence in government than any other professor. Moreover, part of the academic job description is to propose and debate ideas, whether they are realistic or not.

In the end, governments do what they want to further their interests as they see fit. While China did mull the idea, it was already ruled out before Prof. Shen published his paper. When looking at policy, we should do well to remember that academics' direct influence on foreign policy is generally low. After all, many of the top 'foreign policy thinkers' in the United States, of all political stripes and ideological persuasions took out an ad opposing the Iraq War, and we all know how that turned out.